Saturday, November 14, 2015

Why Hasn't the ISIS 'State' Been Crushed?

What's the problem with crushing ISIS? Why hasn't that happened already, given how extreme and brutal they clearly are?

Part of the problem, of course, is that, after our Iraq debacle along with our continuing Afghani war, the United States is just not much interested in mounting the kind of infantry assault that it would require to dislodge and defeat the ISIS forces. ISIS controls two large cities, Mosul and Raqqa, that will require more than just air attacks but Army and Marine troops, numbering in the tens of thousands, maybe more.

But here's the larger problem. The US has been, for years now, more interested in overthrowing the reigning government of Syria than in fighting ISIS. And this is true of the primary US allies in the region: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. They collectively seem to view Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, along with Syria, as the major enemy, not ISIS. It almost seems like they believe that once Assad is overthrown and the Iranians pushed back, then that will be the time to deal with ISIS.

So, with all the talk about an anti-ISIS coalition, very little has actually been done about ISIS over the last two years.

And then, along comes the Russians. It was their entry into the Syrian civil war that has truly changed everything. Long time allies of the Syrian government, the Russians have brought their considerable military machine (especially air power) to the aid of the Syrians, and in the process has hit all of the rebel Islamist groups in Syria, including ISIS.

I think it was this that has caused ISIS to lash out in ways they haven't before. For the first time, they see themselves threatened in a truly substantial way, not by the US but by the Russians and a reinvigorated Syrian army, along with their Iranian and Hezbollah allies. Hence the downed Russian airliner, and now, an attack on France (who admittedly has been bombing them recently).

Could ISIS be defeated by a grand coalition of Russia AND the US, Iran And Saudi Arabia, Iraq AND Turkey? I have no doubt about it. But getting all of these countries to overcome the overarching regional Shia-Sunni conflict, along with the efforts to overthrow Assad in Syria in order to focus on defeating ISIS? Ah, that's the problem.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Way to Go, Republicans. You Just Elected Clinton as President.

The Republicans accomplished something very significant today in their Benghazi hearings (we listened to about 6 hours of it driving to Florida). By their shameful political treatment of Hillary Clinton and her amazing endurance and patience, they may well have guaranteed her nomination as the Democratic candidate and election as the next President.

As a Democrat who prefers that our nominee not be Clinton, all I can say is, way to go, Republicans. Way to go.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Donald Trump: Wild Card

Donald Trump keeps surprising us, just like a wild card should.  Just yesterday, he got everyone stirred up over his contretemps with Jeb Bush, concerning 9/11 and whether Jeb's brother 'kept us safe'.  In the news media (or at least those things I saw), Trump again got the better of his political opponent.

This has been Trump's pattern so far as a Presidential candidate.  When he counter-punches a competitor's comment, he either knocks them down or says something so outrageous and funny that it's entertaining and you almost don't take it seriously.  Either way he comes out on top.

This man is definitely sui generis, unlike any other politician that I can remember in my life.

When he declared back in June, like everyone else I didn't really take him very seriously.  My sense at the time was that there were three basic reactions to him:  you found him entertaining, you found him outrageous and offensive, or you really, really liked him.  I found him funny, while my wife found him outrageous.

Now, 4 months later and he's on top of the Republican polls, where he's been since the beginning.

Donald Trump is stirring the pot like no one else has in a long time.  Oh yes, there have been the 'flash in the pan' Republicans, starting back in 2012, who rose for a couple of days or weeks to the top of the pile and then shrunk back down out of sight.  Just off the top of my head, you had Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and probably others as well.  All the while this was going on, Mitt Romney was hovering at the number 2 spot just biding his time.

It looked like the same thing was going to happen this year, and to some extent it has.  Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and at the present moment, Ben Carson, have all their moments of glory and spotlight, when it looked like they might be capable of moving into the top spot.

But only Donald Trump has been number one and stayed number one, contrary to all the political pundits.  Trump is giving them, one and all, fits.  And just the other day, on FOX News Sunday, the host Chris Wallace made what was almost a confession when he said something like "I think this guy can win the nomination."  And that kind of remark and admission began to heard all other the TV and the internet.

So what to make of this Trump phenomenon?

While his critics love to make fun of him as a 'reality TV star' or as a 'clown' or a dozen other derogatory names, the reality is that Donald Trump has a lot of personal attributes that make him a formidable political candidate.  Let me list a few.

He's fabulously rich, first of all.  He doesn't need to beg and scrap for money, like the other candidates do. And so while the others are out doing fund raisers or calling rich donors on the phone, he's doing public rallies and forums, or relaxing at home (at one of his dozens of properties), tweeting out responses to various pundits or opponents.  All of which gets him far more media attention than any of the others.

Then he is both smart and fast on his feet.  He can spar verbally with anyone and usually comes out on top.  He is entertaining and funny, as I mentioned earlier.  He is, most definitely, high-energy!  In these things, he reminds me of the boxer Mohammad Ali.  All of which is a winning combination in this media and celebrity age.

Trump knows the business world and, surprisingly, he knows the political world pretty well too.  Perfect example of this, he boasts about being invited to the wedding of Bill and Hillary's daughter.  Or he talks about lobbying Jeb Bush down in Florida when he was governor.  In other words, he has run for decades in the elite circles of New York, the US, and the entire world really, and he knows how it all works.  And he doesn't hesitate to talk about it openly and honestly in interviews and debates.

Trump is candid and outspoken, willing to be both frank and plain-spoken in his comments.  People like that, and in general will give such a candidate a lot of latitude to say outrageous things.  Trump has made any number of statements that might have doomed the average candidate, such as his 'McCain not a hero' remark, or his early statements on immigration.  But he remains on top.

Donald Trump is basically a pragmatist, not an ideologue.  And that, in the Republican field of candidates, is a most refreshing thing.  I think that it makes him appealing to a certain niche of the party, plus also attracts independent voters.  Americans historically like pragmatists in general (which could well be Bernie Sanders' undoing, for example, in the Democratic Party).

Let me end this here, because this post is going on too long, and I'll have further opportunities to comment on Trump as this campaign season goes along.  Clearly Trump has his problems and drawbacks that he'll have to overcome.

But I have to say, Trump has been such a wild and winning card in this political season, that he's upsetting everyone's conventional wisdom as to what is going to happen.  This is going to be interesting!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Bernie Sanders, Socialism, and Young People

Here are some possible reasons that younger voters don't seem to fear the term 'socialism' when uttered by Bernie Sanders (or, more likely, interviewers asking him questions, since Sanders really doesn't use the word himself)....

First, most young people are, well, young enough to not really have been traumatized by the Cold War between the US and the USSR.  In fact, most of them came of age after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and what little they do know about Communism must seem like ancient history to them.  'Socialism' is not really a dirty word to them and certainly doesn't seem to conjure up nightmare visions of gulags and secret police.

Second, what young people know of our vaunted capitalistic system hasn't exactly filled them with confidence in the glories of free enterprise.  To be more specific, they have lived through two rather difficult economic crises, the Internet bust in 2000 and the far more serious Financial Crash of 2008. The Great Recession of 2008 is still not over really and has left millions of folks struggling with unemployment, lower wages, inadequate retirement savings, and uncertain expectations for the future.  Europe has struggled as well, with the Eurozone struggling to hang together.  Meanwhile China (until very recently) has been economically growing like crazy, under a Communist Party, of all things!

Third, young people don't know what the future holds.  Climate change is something that most of them believe in, and it fills them with dread as they see it happening before their eyes.  And most of them (unless they work for government or have gotten rich in Silicon Valley) don't know how to both have a decent standard of living and save for their retirement.  Pensions such as my generation knew them are mostly a thing of the past (again, except in some government jobs), and figuring out how to replace them with 401-K accounts, etc. is definitely not easy.  So the safety net of Social Security, Medicare, and other 'socialist' type government programs begin to look a lot better for a providing a little security in their hoped-for old age.

Fourth, young people these days travel all around the world.  They've been to Europe, they've been to the 'Third World', they've been to Asia, and these experiences have taught them that, while the US is a good country, there are plenty of other good countries and good cultures that have different economic and political systems that can work just as good as ours.  Young people today don't fear differences or diversity, they seek it out.

So, for these reasons (and probably others as well), young people don't fear the idea of socialism.  Therefore, many of them are being drawn to the political egalitarian idealism, the conviction, and authenticity of Bernie Sanders.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Limits of 'Religious Freedom'

The turn of events in Indiana and Arkansas concerning their 'religious freedom' laws show, in my opinion, how little those laws have to do with 'religious freedom' in the first place. They were really about the right of people to discriminate in the 'public square' against other people they don't like. 
Indiana Governor Mike Pence

This is nothing new. For centuries, American slave-owners used their religious scriptures and theology to justify their right to own people as property. After the issue of slavery was resolved 150 years ago by a bloody civil war, the former slave owners continued to use their religion to justify discriminating against black people and their right to vote, to attend any school, to use the bathroom, go to a restaurant, or marry a person of a different race.

Virtually everyone in America now accepts that no one has the 'religious freedom' to discriminate against people of another race. You may have the 'right' to have racist thoughts, but you don't have the right to discriminate in the public square of business, government, education, health care, etc. Intolerance of this kind is now unacceptable in this society and outliers are considered social pariahs and bigots.

Now the scene has shifted away from race to sexual orientation, and the same thing has happened. Discrimination against a socially despised group--in this case, gays and lesbians--that has for centuries been justified by religious dogma, has now become unacceptable, and attempts to continue that social behavior are being repudiated by powerful social forces (American business, in this case) in a sudden, quite unforeseen way.

Sure, those religious people who want to continue to discriminate against gays and lesbians in their pulpits and churches will still be able to do so if they wish. They won't have to perform same-sex marriages. They won't have to ordain homosexuals. They won't even have to accept them as members or take their money in the offering plate. That is surely a guarantee of the First Amendment, with its language of "free exercise", although personally I find it unfortunate that religious people would want to continue to discriminate in this way.

But that understanding of 'religious freedom' has its limits. And the recent experience of Gov Mike Pence in Indiana seems to be further defining what those limits are.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Origins of Islamic Radicalism

[Written the fall of 2006 in conjunction with a Methodist church study of Islam]

Where did Islamic radicalism come from?

Protest by Islamic Fundamentalists in London
This is an important question, because we know that the Islamic civilization that has spanned some 14 centuries and a large part of the African, Middle Eastern, and Asian continents cannot in itself be called radical. To the contrary, it has been throughout history a most impressive civilization, which blended the Islamic religion as founded by the 7th century prophet Muhammad, with all of the geographic, cultural, social, political, and economic factors that go into any civilization, whether it be Western Civilization, the Chinese Civilization, or the Indian Civilization of the South Asian Subcontinent.

The entity we call Islam was and is actually a hybrid civilization that brought together elements of Arab, Latin, Greek, Persian, and Jewish cultures. For about 400 years, from 800 to 1200 AD, it was one of the greatest civilizations of the time, far more cultivated than the Europe of the Dark Ages. Medicine, astronomy, architecture, mathematics, poetry, history, and religious studies flourished. Even the Crusades, the invasion by the West to regain the Holy Land, didn’t really amount to much. Then around the 13th century, the Islamic empire began to decline, especially under the attacks by the Mongols of Genghis Khan, who invaded the lands of the Middle East, conquering the centers of Islam, including the great centers in Persia and eventually the great Islamic city of Baghdad. Millions of Muslims were slaughtered by the Mongols, who ironically themselves eventually became converts to Islam.

Eventually, the Ottoman Turks succeeded the Arabs as rulers of Islam, and the Ottoman empire in its turn became one of the greatest empires in the world for the next six centuries. It eventually conquered what remained of the Eastern Roman Empire called Byzantium and converted its capital city from Constantinople to Istanbul.

Yet the best days of the Islamic civilization were behind it by the 14 century, and it passed the cultural baton, so to speak, to the West, beginning with the Italian renaissance, which profited immensely from the cultural and intellectual achievements of the Persians Muslims especially. After that, Islam sunk into a kind of cultural slumber, not really ever going through the ages of reason and science that caused the West to become such a powerful civilization technologically. With the failure of the Ottoman Turk advance on Vienna in 1683, Islam began its long military, political and economic decline vis-à-vis the West.

In Western Europe, the forces of capitalism and democracy were stirring, spurred on by the scientific, technological, and rational advances of the age of reason. The Spanish, then the British and the Dutch, and finally the French began to project their power around the world, conquering this land and then that land. The Islamic countries were first touched by this when the armies of Napoleon invaded Egypt and then colonized other North African countries. Britain had already colonized India and other Asian lands with their large Muslim populations. Finally, when the Ottoman Empire sided with the losing Axis powers in World War I, it was eaten up by the victorious Allies, with England taking over the provinces making up Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt while Lebanon and Syria were taken over the French. Persia, current day Iran, was just about the only country to not be colonized. Over the next 80 years, all of these countries would gain their formal independence from the European imperial powers. Yet they would continue to be caught in the large political crosscurrents caused by the Cold War between the Soviet Union and Russia.

During all of this time, the religion of Islam continued to nurture and control the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the people of the Islamic civilization. And it was a remarkably centrist and stable Islam, with a certain diversity and toleration for diversity.

So what are the factors that have caused the development of Islamic radicalism in the 20th century?

First of all, Islamic radicalism was a reaction to the secularism and modernism of the West. Western secularism began to impact Islamic society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were the upper classes of society, the ruling and relatively wealthy elite, who for the most part, accepted the forces of modernizing change. They attended Western educational institutions, often in Europe or the United States. They began to dress like Europeans, casting aside their traditional garb. They began to allow women, who were traditionally kept in very subservient, domestic roles, to begin to be educated, to work, and to dress like Western women. In addition, these Islamic elite began to advocate for the progressive secularization of Muslim society along Western lines, separating religion from politics, education, and the legal system.

In reaction to this, a minority of Muslims developed a movement called Islamic Fundamentalism, and this movement was led by religious conservatives who opposed modernism and favored the traditional ways of Islam. They deeply resented the changes going on in their society, fearful that it would lead to the kind of social decadence that was beginning to appear in the West in the 19th and 20th centuries, with its moral permissiveness and family breakdown. This deep split between the modern and the traditional in Islamic lands seemed to be much more dramatic and substantial than anything seen in the West.

The first major embodiment of Islamic Fundamentalism was in Egypt with the rise and growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s. This religious organization, based in the growing slums of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, drew many rural immigrants into its fold and, through the use of social welfare measures, such as providing health care, supplemental food, education, and employment opportunities, as well as indoctrinating them in the fundamentalist worldview, was able to forge a growing mass movement that was anti-Western and anti-modern. Over the years, this model of organization was duplicated throughout the Muslim world, and at the same time, became increasingly militant in its demands and political in its goals.

What did and do the Islamic Fundamentalists want? First of all, they reject the Modern West and its alien cultural ways. To them it is seen as a “civilization of lazy people obsessed with longevity, physical beauty, financial success and material possessions.” It is also “colonialist, self-assured, barbarous, and racist…a collection of casinos, supermarkets, and whorehouses linked together by endless highways passing through nowhere.” It is not too much to say that the fundamentalists hate the West and its current leader, the United States, considering it to be the agent of Satan in the world. They believe that God is seeking to destroy the West for its sins and paganism, and they would like to be agents of that destruction.

They want to return the traditional Islamic ways of life, and this includes the demand that the creedal and ethical dictates of Islam, traditionally understood, be publicly recognized and legally enforced, in all their strictness. Women and men are to be socially separated, and women are to be kept in merely domestic roles, wearing traditional Islamic clothing that covers everything including most of the face. Islamic law, directly derived from the Koran, is to be the recognized and enforced law of the land. The regular Islamic religious ritual is be faithfully performed by every person. Every behavior that contradicts the Koranic law is to be prohibited, and there many such prohibitions, ranging from drinking alcohol, to watching Western television and movies, to reading Western books or magazines. The education in Islamic societies is to be traditional, avoiding any contact with Western ideas. Ideally, the Islamic world is to be reunited, by force if necessary through Jihad, under one just ruler, who, though not ruling democratically, would rule by Islamic justice, thus completing the re-Islamization of the land of Islam.

Interestingly, we can see a somewhat parallel phenomenon occurring in Christianity, particularly in America, with the rise of Christian fundamentalism. It has a similar desire to return to the traditional Christian way of thinking and acting. We have seen this around this, with the rise of home schooling, creationism, pro-life movement, and so on.

The second major cause of Islamic radicalism is the establishment of Israel in 1948. The rise of Israel saw a concurrent forcing into exile of many of the inhabitants of Palestine, which was an event of great pain to the Islamic world, which saw Israel as a permanent intrusion of the West into the Islamic civilization. Then with the conquest of Jerusalem, which was a holy city to Muslims, things got even worse. Finally, most Muslims see the United States as an uncritical supporter of Israel and this has caused them to be quite anti-American as a result.

A third cause of Islamic radicalism would seem to be the involvement of the United States in the Middle East, especially in the lands holy to Muslims, such as Saudi Arabia. Osama Bin Laden has specifically stated that it was the presence of the American armed forces in his homeland of Saudi Arabia that he found to be so offensive.

Another ‘bone’ that sticks in the craw of the Muslims was the role of the American CIA in the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Iran in 1953. After 25 years of pro-American rule of the Shah of Iran, who was basically put in power by the Americans, Islamic radicalism took over Iran in 1979 in a revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeni. Since then, Iran and America have been at each others throat for the last 25 years. In the 80’s, the United States was a supporter of Saddam Hussein and Iraq against the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq War. Ten years later, Saddam Hussein and Iraq became our enemies, during the first Persian Gulf War and in the following ten years.

Ironically, America also promoted the rise of Islamic radicalism by sponsoring and helping to pay for the rise of the Islamic mujahadin to help fight the Soviet Union, following their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Osama Bin Laden was one of the fighters recruited by the United States for that purpose. Saudi Arabia assisted us in this endeavor by promoting their brand of Islamic Fundamentalism known as Wahabism throughout the Islamic world.  Al Qaeda and its offshoots (like ISIS) came out of the conjunction of the Afghanistan Mujahadin and Saudi Wahabi Fundamentalism.

Finally, our recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have only poured fire on the flames of Islamic radicalism, increasing its attractiveness to millions in the Islamic world as a way of opposing American/non-Muslim presence in the Islamic world.

It does not seem to me that we will make much progress in reducing the influence of Islamic radicalism in the Islamic world until we find it possible to reduce our military presence there and until we find it possible to act as an honest broker of a peace settlement between the Israelites and the Palestinians.